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Standing in the tragic gap

April 13, 2011

We have spent the day with a number of Finnish public sector people. I am always touched by the warmth and generosity of the Finns. Today was about the big challenges facing the society, a new phase of global trade that is challenging what has been a great run for this small country and an aging population that is putting significant pressure on public services.

What emerges from the conversational threads is the importance of narrative. The elements of existing narrative are: resilience (a society that in relatively recent memory went through incredible dislocation when it's principle trading partner (USSR) dissolved); opportunistic risk taking facilitated by a period of consensus building around the need to change; commitment to equality and solidarity; and, a confidence in the Finnish future (my significations).

The public service culture is still, like ours and most others, firmly rooted in management that is industrial in it's origins and practice. My listening was attentive to those elements of our conversations that suggested that a shift to a new leadership culture was occurring.

What I liked most was a great attention to a realization that public value will be created through a significant rethink of boundaries. The private public boundary is being blurred, which is happening everywhere.

Two other boundary reformulations are also emerging, one around the boundaries within the public sector ( huge challenge) and one which I think has great promise and looks to redefine public value production between the citizen and the government. The language is important here as it establishes paradoxes that can become the real space of experimental learning. It is spoken to as "the everyone involved model" by Jonna Stenman of SITRA (the Finnish Innovation Fund). It is moving to demand driven, more choice, and human touch in an environment of declining public expenditure. Esko Kilpi speaks to social media creating a new network that redefines boundaries from "creating files" to "creating connections".

Returning to narrative the approach is about "letting people be more involved in there own well being". The difference between rhetoric (of which there is a lot in discussion of publicly provided service) and what I am willing to call an emerging narrative is the degree to which the words reflect shared experience, aspiration, current reality and respect the inherent tensions. Success will be the ability of the Finnish government to live in the paradox of the fiscal reality,the existing narrative and a learning by doing approach as the collective narrative is rewritten. Parker Palmer calls this space the "tragic gap" and it is by standing here that innovation will occur.

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